At the time that FIGMENT began, Governors Island was a new public venue that had recently (2003) been turned over from the Federal Government to New York City, with a very specific set of restrictions: there could be no permanent housing on the island, no casinos for 50 years, and significant portions of the island had to be used for educational and cultural purposes. In short, Governors Island was a new piece of real estate in New York City that had to be used for the benefit of all New Yorkers.
First, Pure Project founder Ryan Fix and Action Arts League Board Secretary and attorney Wyle Stecklow joined the team. At a meeting in March 2007, the four discussed whether to try to launch FIGMENT in 2007, or to hold off and create a bigger event in 2008. Wylie and Ryan were strong proponents of starting with an event in 2007. Wylie contended that by creating a “footprint” event in 2007, it would be easier to get permits in future years. The group agreed, and decided to proceed to try to make an event happen in 2007. Ryan committed the full resources of the Pure Project, an incubator for innovative, socially conscious projects, and the planning team began to meet in Pure Project’s offices on Mulberry Street.
As new GIPEC President Leslie Koch began to respond to her mandate to increase public attendance to the island and spur development, she started to make some changes at GIPEC in early 2007. Elizabeth Rapuano joined GIPEC as Director of Marketing and Public Relations in February, and Lynda Realmuto was hired as Director of Programming and Special events in April. New to the island, and tasked with bringing programs to the island to increase public use of the island, Lynda was very receptive to the idea of FIGMENT when she met with David, Jim, and Ryan shortly after she started in April.
At the next meeting of the planning team, David brought event producer Kevin Balktick, and Ryan brought artist and organizer Johan Kritzinger, and the group of six worked together to further tighten the concept for the event and to plan how the event work be organized and would work. As an experienced organizer and leader, David took on the role of Executive Producer for the event, working with Kevin to lead the production of the event. As the Executive Director of Action Arts League and a talented connector and evangelist, Jim stepped into an advisory and recruiting role. Ryan and Johan and their team of Pure Project interns worked together on publicizing the event and recruiting artists to participate. As an activist attorney, Wylie became the General Counsel for the event, working on legal, insurance, and permitting issues.
The proposed date for the event was set for Sunday, July 8 (actually David’s birthday) and the organizers told Lynda to expect “between 200 and 500 people.” Through all of their networks, the group put the word out far and wide, sent out press releases, enlisted additional volunteers, and sent out a call for art. When arts collective Disorient signed on to the project, the group started to see things fall into place. Dorothy Trojanowski offered to bring her “Rubber Horses” sculptures, which had been created for Burning Man, to FIGMENT. All in all, over 60 arts projects committed to coming, coordinated by Pure Project interns and led by Curatorial Director Johan Kritzinger.
The event was promoted to the New York Burning Man community, and through Flavorpill, Reality Sandwich, and other online publications. David’s wife Sasha Koren, an interactive creative director, quickly developed a logo and website. New York Times reporter Melena Ryzik wrote about the project in the Friday Weekend Section, with a picture of the Rubber Horses being installed. The group ordered 36 orange T-shirts for FIGMENT volunteers, and got the word out through email lists and flyers.
Everyone was amazed with the turnout, as over 2,600 people streamed into the Nolan Park section of the Island on a Sunday, setting an attendance record for the most people on the island since it had re-opened to the public. The organizers and the island were completely unprepared for this response, as thousands of people lined up to wait for ferries outside the Battery Maritime Building in Manhattan. It is estimated that another 2,000 people were turned away, unable to fit on the regular ferries. Perhaps most incredibly, the organizers and volunteers were able to break down and get everybody and all the projects off the island by the 5pm ferry. The island staff was amazed with FIGMENT’s ability to leave no trace of its existence.
Amy Zimmer from New York Metro came out to cover the event, and wrote a great piece that appeared in the Monday edition of the paper titled, “Arts Festival Awakens Sleepy Governors Island.”
A critical time for the arts
2007 was a critical time for the arts in New York. It was the height of the economic boom, and the gradual gentrification of the city had caused rents to rise, driving artists deep into the outer boroughs, or out of the city altogether. At the same time, there was a growing cultural movement towards participatory art—art that is fully immersive, where the experience of the viewer or visitor is enhanced by directly interacting and engaging.
Community parades like the annual Greenwich Village Halloween Parade and the Coney Island Mermaid Parade were open to anyone to join in, dress up, and be a part of the creativity. And, through the efforts of not-for-profit arts organizations like Creative Time, the Public Art Fund, chashama, and Lower Manhattan Cultural Council, more conventional visual and performing arts were increasingly moving out of the galleries and theaters and into site-specific venues. Rachel Ward’s Terminal 5 exhibition in October 2004 reopened the breathtaking Saarinen Terminal at JFK airport and filled it with cutting edge site-specific artwork. The show was closed by the Port Authority the day after it opened.
In 2005, Christo and Jean-Claude installed The Gates along 23 miles of pathways in Central Park, energizing millions of volunteers, New Yorkers and visitors from around the world. The same year, Gregory Colbert’s photography exhibit Ashes and Snow began its tour around the world with an installation in the Nomadic Museum, a custom-built, sustainable traveling museum made from shipping containers and cardboard at Pier 54 with audio, video and a cathedral-like atmosphere. These works and others showed New Yorkers that art could be immersive, and that the experience of the viewer or visitor could be enhanced by the experience of interacting and engaging directly with art.
In this environment, a group of volunteers came together to create FIGMENT as a new kind of event for New York City. Inspired and influenced by the current arts environment in New York, as well as by Burning Man (an annual arts event in Nevada), the founders of FIGMENT sought to create a forum in New York in which everyone is welcome to participate and make art—regardless of training, credentials, funding, or even the medium in which they choose to work. The founders of FIGMENT were united in the belief that as people create collaborative artwork, express themselves, and work together to give a form to their dreams, a community would grow around the event and around Governors Island as it was developed.
While FIGMENT has quickly grown into a large-scale collaborative project involving the contributions of thousands of artists, organizers, volunteers, and enthusiastic participants, the first FIGMENT event was developed and planned by a core leadership group of six: David Koren, Jim Glaser, Ryan Fix, Wylie Stecklow, Kevin Balktick, and Johan Kritzinger. FIGMENT has grown, in just a few short years, from this group of six sitting around a table into a volunteer organization of several hundred people on the planning team for events in multiple cities, with hundreds more volunteers helping at the events. More than just an event or an exhibition, FIGMENT has become a community of artists and organizers.
FIGMENT gets serious
Over the next few months, FIGMENT was defined and established as an official project of Action Arts League, with a charter that binds the event to follow ten principles modeled after the Burning Man event: Radical Inclusion, Gifting, Decommodification, Radical Self-Reliance, Radical Self-Expression, Communal Effort, Civic Responsibility, Leaving No Trace, Participation, and Immediacy (although the principles have been re-arranged and edited to make them relevant for an urban event that is open to the public). David Koren was established as the Executive Producer of the event.
The original team who made the 2007 event happen was reformed as the FIGMENT Advisory Committee, adding one of the leaders of the Disorient collective, The Eye, as well as a few other key community leaders. Key organizers of each year’s FIGMENT events are added to the Advisory Committee to maintain a strong connection between the FIGMENT vision and principles and day-to-day operations. The group continues to meet on a quarterly basis to refine the vision for the event and set the parameters by which the event will continue to grow. In particular, this group discusses commerce and decommodification extensively; any aspect of the event or its planning that involves commerce, including selling or corporate representation, is debated heatedly, as the event strives to enable full participation from everyone, and the organizers believe that commerce or advertising has a direct impact on the level of participation and investment of participants.